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LAist DVD Review: Bigger Stronger Faster*

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Director Chris Bell bulks up...thanks to steroids and Photoshop. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

The Governator. Gubenador. Ahhnold. The Schwarz. If you ask some Democrats in Sacramento, I’m sure our Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger could be called a lot worse, too. There is one little bit of nomenclature, however, that I am sure our state’s man in charge would rather not hear: steroid user.

The truth, however, is that Conan himself, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, is an admitted user of anabolic steroids. And it is precisely this laughable level of hypocrisy that Bigger Stronger Faster* looks to exploit in it’s DVD release. Already a well-received film on the silver screen, newcomer Chris Bell’s documentary hopes to gather some more muscle on the DVD circuit. And by the look of things, it has plenty of reason to flex proudly.

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Bigger Stronger Faster* makes every attempt to inject itself into the same vein as the slew of widely available Michael Mooredebunk-umentaries, which is initially surprising, since most of us believe quite widely that steroids and other performance enhancements are morally and physically abhorrent. Terrible tragedies like former professional wrestler Chris Benoit and media buzzwords (‘roid rage, et al.) have conditioned most Americans to accept the underground phenomenon of steroid and Human Growth Hormone (HGH) use as something to be shunned, for fear it may spread and lead to nationwide disaster. Not to mention the tarnishing of the great American past time. But where are the statistics? Where is the long-term research dedicated to the use of performance enhancers?

If writer / director Bell is to be believed, nowhere. Faced with his own body-building aspirations, and two brothers who are hush-hush anabolic users themselves, he sets about understanding where the false mentality surrounding steroid use stems from. In dozens of interviews, ranging from politicians to gym rats to Mennonite Floyd Landis supporters (seriously), the film tries to understand how a drug with 3 fatalities a year can be illegal, when cigarettes and alcohol are only $5 and one uncaring store clerk away. When the begins to come up empty, Chris turns the film onto a more familial path, wherein he is challenged by own past use, and his mothers' crushing determination to bury her head in the sand.

It is in these times, when Bigger Stronger Faster* focuses on family, that it is the most successful. Beyond the facts, the fallacies, and the Gomorrah-sized pinch of salt the film serves up, it is also a human story about one man making a documentary to help himself separate the truth from the fiction. And when the camera turns on himself, his bleakly logical father, or Mom in the kitchen baking good luck bars for the high school team, the science and the arguments seem to fade away. Bell's older brothers bring a fun, yet emotional flare to the screen that can easily get lost in a maze of sound bytes and narration.

The biggest pitfalls to the film are the same that often beset any documentary with a staunch position on a volatile premise. The overall tone is deliberately one-sided, which can lead to questions regarding the authenticity of the information presented. The pro-position arguments often only stem from the very people you would expect, instead of a thrid-party independent observer in a Harvard labocoat, surrounded by beakers in various states of readiness. But for each common documentary tactic used, there is a raised point of discussion that requires serious thinking, or a moment of honest reflection concerning a preconceived notion about steroids.

The DVD itself is rather bare-bones, and could do with a little juice in the Bonus Features section to really fill out. The obligatory behind-the-scenes montage plays more like a visual rolling credits than any real look at the insight behind the film. The deleted scenes are often funny, but with a quick realization as to why it didn't make it off the cutting room floor. Perhaps the best of these is a short clip wherein Bell and his brother enter into a weightlifting competition, but must try to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 pounds, almost overnight, in order to 'make weight'.

While not the bountiful juggernaut so oft-depicted in the film, Bigger Stronger Faster* still packs a powerful punch, and should be thought-provoking enough to promote some discussion. The DVD release is especially tailored to bring the film to a wider audience, rather than satiate the enraged demands of an already appreciative fan base. And while that is not a knock on the film, the DVD could do with a little performance enhancement of its own. Maybe Chris Bell should call the Governator, I hear he's got a great hook-up.

Bigger Stronger Faster* is available on DVD September 30th.